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Full disclosure: As a retired teacher, I am a recipient of those benefits that our community has provided to its public servants. Like so many of my colleagues, I never took them for granted.
Tom Dean of Waitsfield responds to Paul Shaw’s In My View in the March 31, 2011, edition of The Valley Reporter.
Dear Mr. Shaw,
Thank you for sharing your letter of March 31, 2011, to Representative Anne Donahue with the readers of The Valley Reporter. A thought-provoking letter deserves what I hope you will find to be an equally provocative response.
In this era of insecurity and even fear, perceived threats to our well-being are singled out. You have chosen two currently popular targets for consideration: government and (public) unions.
In the course of your polemic, you specifically focused on the “government take over” of health care. As an honest man, which I assume you are, you may not know that this statement is false. A single payer plan, of which there are many models, is a means of delivering payment for health care. A single payer system is no more a government take over of health care than our publicly financed interstate highway system was a government take over of the construction industry that built it. (Now, if the federal government brought in the Navy’s SeaBees ...).
Though you began with an attack on a single payer system, the main thrust of your letter was an assault on public service and public servants. In the midst of our current Great Recession many, like you, have discovered that public servants -- our game wardens and park rangers, policemen, post masters, teachers and those driving the snow plows on our state’s highways -- get paid and receive pensions. The resentment you express would be a rational response and well deserved if our nation’s wealth and income were in decline and we were all called upon to make sacrifices. However, this is not the case.
Over the past 30 years, the nation’s total wealth, its “economic pie,” and total household income have grown a great deal. But, as I am sure you are well aware, the distribution of this wealth has not grown proportionately. Consider: The share of total household income has decreased for all except the top 5 percent, most of whom received modest gains.
The share of the top 1 percent, reflected a gain of 120 percent, rising from 11 percent to almost 20 percent of all household income. From the 1970s to the 2000s, during a time when worker productivity increased, the average direct compensation of a CEO compared to a production worker went from 35 to 240 times a worker’s wage. (The highest tax brackets enjoyed the greatest rise in after tax income.)
How do you explain this? Do working stiffs simply deserve a smaller slice of the economic pie than they had received in prior decades? Is it the voracious appetite of public service workers who, through their unions, have received an unfair portion of our country’s expanding wealth and thus, through taxes, have deprived others of their fair share?
The unions to which public sector employees belong are the last remnants of the once influential unions found in the private sector. These unions are not vultures but canaries in the coal mine. It was unions that once gave voice to the working stiff and strengthened the working and middle classes; it was unions that secured improved wages and working conditions and gained a greater share of the nation’s wealth for workers. From this, all workers, union and non-union alike, benefitted. When these unions were at their strongest ALL America saw its most equitable distribution of wealth in its history.
I am aware that unions, like corporations, governments or powerful churches are susceptible to the corruption that comes with power in the hands of people. Therefore, to constantly monitor the actions and challenge the abuses of unions is a necessity but to destroy the right to collective bargaining would be a travesty.
It is the policy of some interests in our country to focus the public’s eye on the burden of taxes while diverting its attention from the reality of and reasons for the inequitable distribution of income in America. What leads people to turn on their fellow working stiffs whose income, if employed at all, rose 2.1 percent last year yet accept without question the reality that the average CEO total compensation rose 39 percent? Whose interests are being served by having working stiffs, in both the private and public spheres, turn on each other and drive down wages and take away benefits? Who is really served by an anti-union crusade?
Tom Dean, Citizen of Waitsfield
Sources: Congressional Budget Office; The Joint Committee on Taxation; Wall Street Journal; Economic Policy Institute; Steven Hall & Partners.